The Case for Chess as a Tool to Develop Our Children’s Minds

By Dr Peter Dauvergne
University of Sydney
July, 2000

Abstract

This article surveys educational and psychological studies to examine the benefits for children of studying and playing chess. These show that chess can

  • Raise intelligence quotient (IQ) scores
  • Strengthen problem solving skills, teaching how to make difficult and abstract decisions independently
  • Enhance reading, memory, language, and mathematical abilities
  • Foster critical, creative, and original thinking
  • Provide practice at making accurate and fast decisions under time pressure, a skill that can help improve exam scores at school
  • Teach how to think logically and efficiently, learning to select the ‘best’ choice from a large number of options
  • Challenge gifted children while potentially helping underachieving gifted students learn how to study and strive for excellence
  • Demonstrate the importance of flexible planning, concentration, and the consequences of decisions
  • Reach boys and girls regardless of their natural abilities or socio-economic backgrounds

Given these educational benefits, the author concludes that chess is one of the most effective teaching tools to prepare children for a world increasingly swamped by information and ever tougher decisions.

Is chess an art? A science? Some claim it’s both. Yet let’s be honest, it’s really just a game. Fun, challenging, creative: but still a game, not much different from tennis, cricket, football, or golf.

But there is one striking difference to these other popular games. While learning to play almost any game can help build self-esteem and confidence, chess is one of the few that fully exercises our minds.

Many of us could probably use this exercise, although it may be a bit late for some. (At least for those of us old enough to read an article like this voluntarily!) It’s not, however, too late for our children.

Chess is one of the most powerful educational tools available to strengthen a child’s mind. It’s fairly easy to learn how to play chess. Most six or seven year olds can follow the basic rules. Some kids as young as four or five can play. Like learning a language or music an early start can help a child become more proficient. Whatever a child’s age, however, learning chess can enhance concentration, patience, and perseverance, as well as develop creativity, intuition, memory, and most importantly, the ability to analyze and deduce from a set of general principles, learning to make tough decisions and solve problems flexibly.

This is undeniably a grand claim. The remainder of this paper outlines some of the arguments and educational studies to justify and support this.

Concentration, Patience, and Perseverance

To play chess well requires intense concentration. Some of the world’s top players can undeniably look distracted, sometimes jumping up between moves to walk around. A closer look, however, reveals that most of these players are actually in deep concentration, relying on strong visual recall to plan and calculate even when they are away from their game. For young, inexperienced players, chess teaches the rewards of concentration as well as provides immediate penalties for lapses. Few teaching tools provide such quick feedback. One slip in concentration can lead to a simple blunder, perhaps even ending the game. Only a focused, patient and persistent young chess player will maintain steady results – characteristics that are equally valuable for performing well at school, especially in school exams.

Analysis, Logic, and Problem Solving

Playing chess and making chess strategies well involves a combination of aptitudes. A 1973-74 study in Zaire by Dr Albert Frank (1974) found that good teenage chess players (16-18 years old) had strong spatial, numerical, administrative-directional, and paperwork abilities. Dr Robert Ferguson (1995, p. 2) notes that “This finding tends to show that ability in chess is not due to the presence in an individual of only one or two abilities but that a large number of aptitudes all work together in chess.” Even more significantly Frank’s study found that learning chess, even as teenagers, strengthened both numerical and verbal aptitudes. This occurred for the majority of students (not just the strong players) who took a chess course for two hours each week for one school year. Other studies have added that playing chess can strengthen a child’s memory (Artise).

A 1990-92 study in New Brunswick, Canada, further shows the value of chess for developing problem-solving skills among young children (Gaudreau 1992). By integrating chess into the traditional mathematics curriculum teachers were able to raise significantly the average problem solving scores of their students. These students also scored far higher on problem solving tests than ones who just took the standard mathematics course. Primary school chess has now exploded in New Brunswick. In 1989, 120 students played in the provincial school chess championship. Three years later over 19,000 played (Ferguson 1995, p. 11).

Chess has also been shown to foster critical and creative thinking. Dr Ferguson’s four-year study (1979-83) analyzed the impact of chess on student’s thinking skills in the Bradford Area School District in the United States (grades 7-9). These students were already identified as gifted, with intelligence quotient (IQ) scores above 130. Using two tests (Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal and the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking) Ferguson (1995, pp. 4-6) found that after spending 60-64 hours playing and studying chess over 32 weeks students showed significant progress in critical thinking. He further found that chess enhances “creativity in gifted adolescents.” He concluded that “it appears that chess is superior to many currently used programs for developing creative thinking and, therefore, could logically be included in a differentiated program for mentally gifted students”.

Playing and learning chess, however, is not only valuable for developing the skills of gifted children. Average and even below average learners can also benefit. Chess coach Michael Wojcio (1990) notes that “even if a slow learner does not grasp all of [the strategies and tactics in chess], he/she can still benefit by learning language, concepts, and fine motor movement.” During a program run by Dr Ferguson from September 1987 to May 1988 all members of a standard sixth grade class in rural Pennsylvania were required to take chess lessons and play games. This class had 9 boys and 5 girls. At the start of this study students took IQ tests, producing a mean IQ of 104.6. Students then studied chess two or three times per week while playing most days. They were also encouraged to participate in tournaments. After this intensive chess instruction a group of seven boys managed to finish second in the 1998 Pennsylvania State Scholastic Championship. Significantly, at the conclusion of the study tests showed a significant increase in both memory and verbal reasoning skills, especially among the more competitive chess players (Ferguson 1995, pp. 8-9).

Chess has even been shown to raise student’s overall IQ scores. Using the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children a Venezuelan study of over 4,000 second grade students found a significant increase in most student’s IQ scores after only 4.5 months of systematically studying chess. This occurred across all socio-economic groups and for both males and females. The Venezuelan government was so impressed that all Venezuelan schools introduced chess lessons starting in 1988-89 (summarized in Ferguson 1995, p. 8).

Solving Problems and Synthesizing Information in a Globalizing World

The internet, email, and computers are rapidly changing the skills essential to succeed at school and work. As globalization accelerates, information is pouring in faster and faster. Information that took months to track down a few years ago can now spin off the internet in just minutes. With such easy access and tremendous volumes, the ability to choose effectively among a wide variety of options is ever more vital.

In this world students must increasingly be able to respond quickly, flexibly and critically. They must be able to wade through and synthesize vast amounts of information, not just memorize chunks of it. They must learn to recognize what is relevant and what is irrelevant. They also need to acquire the skills to be able to learn new technologies quickly as well as solve a continual stream of problems with these new technologies.

This is where chess as a tool to develop our children’s minds appears to be especially powerful. By its very nature chess study presents an ever-changing set of problems. Except for the very beginning of the game – where it’s possible to memorize the strongest lines – each move creates a new position. For each of these a player tries to find the ‘best’ move by calculating ahead, evaluating these future possibilities using a set of theoretical principles. Importantly, more than one ‘best’ move may exist; just as in the real world more than one best option may exist. Players must learn to decide, even when the answer is ambiguous or difficult.

These thinking skills are becoming ever more valuable for primary and secondary school students constantly confronted with new everyday problems. If these students go to university it will be especially imperative to understand how to apply broad principles to assess new situations critically, rather than rely on absorbing a large number of ‘answers’. Far too commonly my own university students do not have these skills. As a result they become swamped by information, vainly searching for the right answer to memorize rather than the various best options.

Conclusion

The case, then, is exceptionally strong for using chess to develop our children’s minds and help them cope with the growing complexities and demands of a globalizing world. More and more schools around the world are recognizing the value of chess, with instruction now becoming part of standard curriculums. It’s of course just a game. Yet it has fascinated and challenged some of the greatest minds of the last century, sparking enough books about how to play to fill an entire library.

Chess is an especially effective teaching tool. It can equally challenge the minds of girls and boys, gifted and average, athletic and non-athletic, rich and poor. It can teach children the importance of planning and the consequences of decisions. It can further teach how to concentrate, how to win and lose gracefully, how to think logically and efficiently, and how to make tough and abstract decisions (Seymour and Norwood 1993). At more advanced levels it can teach flexible planning since playing well requires a coherent plan, yet not one that is rigidly followed regardless of the opponent’s response. Playing and learning chess can also build confidence and self- esteem without over inflating egos, as some losses are inevitable, even for world champions.

Chess can potentially help teach underachieving gifted children how to study, perhaps even leaving them with a passion for learning. Chess tournaments can, moreover, provide a natural setting for a gifted child to interact with other children of all ages, as many tournaments are not divided by age but by ability (unlike most school activities and many other sports). It’s common to see a six-year-old playing a twelve-year-old, or a ten-year-old playing a seventeen-year-old. Young players can also perform remarkably well in adult chess tournaments. In 1999-2000 in Australia, for example, a thirteen-year-old won the New South Wales championship, a fourteen- year-old won the South Australian championship, a fifteen-year-old won the Queensland championship, and a thirteen-year-old tied for second in the Australian championship.

Studying chess systematically has also been shown to raise students’ IQ scores, academic exam scores (Dullea 1982; Palm 1990; Ferguson 2000, p. 3), as well as strengthen mathematical, language, and reading skills (Margulies 1991; Liptrap 1998; Ferguson 2000, pp. 3-4).

Tournaments and online chess games, which involve clocks to limit the total time each player can use, are also a fun way to provide practice at making fast and accurate decisions under pressure, a skill that can help students cope with the similar pressures of school exams. This is also a fun way to practice how to put the mind into high gear, where intense concentration increases alertness, efficiency of thought processes, and ultimately mental performance.

Perhaps most importantly online chess for kids is a fun way to teach children how to think and solve an ever- changing and diverse array of difficult problems. With millions of possibilities in every game, players must continually face new positions and new problems. They cannot solve these using a simple formula or relying on memorized answers. Instead, they must analyze and calculate, relying on general principles and patterns along with a dose of creativity and originality – a skill that increasingly mirrors what students must confront in their everyday schoolwork.

In June 1999 the International Olympic Committee officially recognized chess as a sport. This is welcome news for the world’s six million registered chess players as well as countless more unregistered players. With such recognition hopefully even more of our children will turn to chess, striving for sporting dreams that will leave them smarter and ultimately able to cope better in the real world of perpetual problems.

About the Author

Peter Dauvergne is a Canadian chess master (FIDE rating 2250) and Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Sydney, Australia. He is the editor of the journal Global Environmental Politics (MIT Press) and the author of numerous books and articles on environmental management in the Asia-Pacific. He can be reached at peterd@econ.usyd.edu.au.

References

These and other chess and education research studies are available from the United States

Chess Federation, http://www.uschess.org/.

Artise, John. “Chess and Education.”

Dullea, Gerard J., 1982. “Chess Makes Kids Smarter,” Chess Life, November.

Frank, Albert, 1974. Chess and Aptitudes, Doctoral Dissertation. Translation, Stanley Epstein. Ferguson, Robert, 1995. “Chess in Education: Research Summary.” A Review of Key Chess Research Studies. For the Borough of Manhattan Community College Chess in Education ‘A Wise Move’ Conference.

Ferguson, Robert, 2000. “The Use and Impact of CHESS,” in Section B, USA Junior Chess Olympics Curriculum, copy emailed by the author.

Gaudreau, Louise, 1992. “Étude Comparative sur les Apprentissages en Mathématiques 5e Annee.”

Liptrap, James, 1998. “Chess and Standard Test Scores,” Chess Life, March.

Margulies, Stuart, 1991. “The Effect of Chess on Reading Scores: District Nine Chess Program Second Year Report.” The American Chess Foundation, New York.

Palm, Christine, 1990. “Chess Improves Academic Performance,” derived from “New York City Schools Chess Program.”

Seymour, Jane, and David Norwood, 1993. “A Game for Life,” New Scientist 139 (September, no.1889), pp. 23-26.

Wojcio, Michael David, 1990. “The Importance of Chess in the Classroom,” Atlantic Chess News.

WHAT DO EDUCATORS SAY?

“Not only have the reading and math skills of these children soared, their ability to socialize has increased substantially, too. Our studies have shown the incidents of suspension and outside altercations have decreased by at least 60 percent since these children became interested in chess.” –Assistant Principal Joyce Brown at the Roberto Clemente School in New York, 1988 [25]

Dr. Fred Loveland, superintendent of the Panama City schools, voiced his opinion: “Chess has taught my students more than any other subject.” [26]

The article “Chess Improves Academic Performance” from the NY School Chess Program features a number of testimonies from school principals, including: “Not only have the reading and math skills of these children soared, their ability to socialize has increased substantially, too. Our studies have shown that incidents of suspension and outside altercations have decreased by at least 60% since these children became interested in chess.” [27]

“It’s the finest thing that ever happened to this school. …chess makes a difference…what it has done for these children is simply beyond anything that I can describe.” [27]

“I see them (students) able to attend to something for more than an hour and a half. I am stunned. Some of them could not attend to things for more than 20 minutes.” — Jo Bruno, Principal, P.S. 189 [27]

Dr. Calvin F. Deyermond, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction for the North Tonawanda City School District, wrote: “Chess develops intellectual, esthetic, sporting, decision making, concentration, and perseverance skills. We have seen the effects of this wonderful game in our classroom and as an extracurricular activity. Not only is it mentally challenging but it attracts not only gifted pupils but also students at all levels of learning. Many students who have been experiencing problems, particularly in mathematics and reading, sometimes demonstrate remarkable progress after learning chess.” [28]

Rob Roy of Connecticut: “Children with special problems can also learn chess. I taught a successful course for emotionally and educationally disadvantaged children in the Waterbury schools and used chess as a way for them to learn and practice self-control. It was like turning on switches in their heads. You see the child looking at a problem, breaking it down, and then putting the whole thing back together. The process involves recall, analysis, judgment and abstract reasoning.” [28]

Public School 68 in the Bronx noted standardized scores increased 11.2% in reading and 18.6% in math during the 1994-95 school year. Principal Cheryl Coles wrote: “As encouraging as our scores are, the benefits of our Chess Education Program far exceeded anything that these scores could ever hope to indicate. There were significant outgrowths in varying degrees in all curriculum areas. Such as: increased enthusiasm for learning, increase in general fund of knowledge, increase in pupil attendance, increase in self-confidence, increase in parent involvement, etc.” [29]

Beulah McMeans, a guidance counselor at Morningside Elementary School in Prince George’s County, MD, uses chess “to help raise the self-esteem and higher order thinking skills for young students, particularly those at risk.” [30]

“Intuitively, I feel what the kids learn from chess carries over to their everyday lives. The change shows up in their improved critical thinking and problem solving. It gets kids to think for themselves.” — Fred Nagler, Principal, P.S. 123 [27]

WHAT DO STUDENTS SAY?

“Chess has significantly increased my logical and mathematical skills. In fact, because of the effect of chess, I am going to major in mathematics and computer science in college, both of which utilize the aforementioned skills.” Matthew Puckett [45]

The skills chess offers to those who play it are gold mines. It teaches the faithful players how to approach life. It teaches people that are having dilemmas that here is more than one answer to a problem. While your adversary is looking at the issue through a single point, you as the great chess player that you are, can take a step back and look at the picture through many points.” Sultan Yusufzai [45]

Because of chess, I feel that my life has been enriched both mentally and socially. I have improved my critical thinking skills in everyday life through chess.” Brandon Ashe [45]

WHAT DO PARENTS SAY?

Andrew Rozsa, psychologist, speaking of his gifted son: “He has had real social and behavioral difficulties since he was 18 months old… He was thrown out of several schools… Things became pretty bad at about age 9 … Nothing seemed to work, nothing. … Today he is a straight A student and his behavior problems are minimal (but not trivial). … Sorry, no control subjects, no double blind, no defined independent variables (actually there are two: chess and age).

Nonetheless, I think that the great improvements we have seen are, to a large extent, due to chess.” [36], [38]

“Chess is one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever seen enter this school system.” Dee Estelle Alpert

“I want to see chess introduced into the curriculum, right alongside math, music, and art.” Oscar Shapiro [27]

CONCLUSION

At the 40th World Chess Congress in 1969, Dr. Hans Klaus, Dean of the School of Philosophy at Humboldt University in Berlin, commented upon the chess studies completed in Germany:

“Chess helps any human being to elaborate exact methods of thinking. It would be particularly useful to start playing chess from the early school days … Everybody prefers to learn something while playing rather than to learn it formally…it produces in our children an improvement in their school achievements. Those children who received systematic instructions in chess improved their school efficiency in different subjects, in contrast with those who did not receive that kind of instruction.” [22]

Because of the overwhelming research demonstrating the benefits of chess and because of the brain research theorizing the growth of dendrites, chess should be integrated into the school curriculum at the primary level.

Chess is a new way of solving the old problem of poor education. From the streets of Harlem to Venezuela’s public schools the sport of kings has been implemented as an effective tool for teaching students to utilize their higher order thinking skills and to strive to overcome personal problems to reach their full potential. In light of these facts it is not unreasonable to imagine chess as a broader part of schools in America. Chess could very well be one of the missing components for America to regain its place at the top for educating its young people.

WHY SHOULD YOU PLAY CHESS? WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS?

Source: library.advanced.org/10746/reasons.html

Chess is a game for people of all ages. You can learn to play at any age and in chess, unlike in many other sports, you don’t ever have to retire. Age is also not a factor when you’re looking for an opponent –young can play old and old can play young.

Chess develops memory. The chess theory is complicated and many players memorize different opening variations. You will also learn to recognize various patterns and remember lengthy variations.

Chess improves concentration. During the game you are focused on only one main goal — to checkmate and become the victor.

Chess develops logical thinking. Chess requires some understanding of logical strategy. For example, you will know that it is important to bring your pieces out into the game at the beginning, to keep your king safe at all times, not to make big weaknesses in your position and not to blunder your pieces away for free. (Although you will find yourself doing that occasionally through your chess career. Mistakes are inevitable and chess, like life, is a never-ending learning process.)

Chess promotes imagination and creativity. It encourages you to be inventive. There are an indefinite amount of beautiful combinations yet to be constructed.

Chess teaches independence. You are forced to make important decisions influenced only by your own judgment.

Chess develops the capability to predict and foresee consequences of actions. It teaches you to look both ways before crossing the street.

Chess inspires self-motivation. It encourages the search of the best move, the best plan, and the most beautiful continuation out of the endless possibilities. It encourages the everlasting aim towards progress, always steering to ignite the flame of victory.

Chess shows that success rewards hard work. The more you practice, the better you’ll become. You should be ready to lose and learn from your mistakes. One of the greatest players ever, Capablanca said, “You may learn much more from a game you lose than from a game you win. You will have to lose hundreds of games before becoming a good player.”

Chess and Science. Chess develops the scientific way of thinking. While playing, you generate numerous variations in your mind. You explore new ideas, try to predict their outcomes and interpret surprising revelations. You decide on a hypothesis, and then you make your move and test it.

Chess and Technology. What do chess players do during the game? Just like computers they engage in a search for the better move in a limited amount of time. What are you doing right now? You are using a computer as a tool for learning.

Chess and Mathematics. You don’t have to be a genius to figure this one out. Chess involves an infinite number of calculations, anything from counting the number of attackers and defenders in the event of a simple exchange to calculating lengthy continuations. And you use your head to calculate, not some little machine.

Chess and Research. There are millions of chess resources out there for every aspect of the game. You can even collect your own chess library. In life, is it important to know how to find, organize and use boundless amounts of information. Chess gives you a perfect example and opportunity to do just that.

Chess and Art. In the Great Soviet Encyclopedia chess is defined as “an art appearing in the form of a game.” If you thought you could never be an artist, chess proves you wrong. Chess enables the artist hiding within you to come out. Your imagination will run wild with endless possibilities on the 64 squares. You will paint pictures in your mind of ideal positions and perfect outposts for your soldiers. As a chess artist you will have an original style and personality.

Chess and Psychology. Chess is a test of patience, nerves, will power and concentration. It enhances your ability to interact with other people. It tests your sportsmanship in a competitive environment.

Chess improves schoolwork and grades. Numerous studies have proven that kids obtain a higher reading level, math level and a greater learning ability overall as a result of playing chess. For all those reasons mentioned above and more, chess playing kids do better at school and therefore have a better chance to succeed in life.

Chess opens up the world for you. You don’t need to be a high ranked player to enter big important competitions. Even tournaments such as the US Open and the World Open welcome players of all strengths. Chess provides you with plenty of opportunities to travel not only all around the country but also around the world. Chess is a universal language and you can communicate with anyone over the checkered plain.

Chess enables you to meet many interesting people. You will make life-long friendships with people you meet through chess.

Chess is cheap. You don’t need big fancy equipment to play chess. In fact, all you may need is your computer! (And we really hope you have one of those, or else something fishy is going on here.) It is also good to have a chess set at home to practice with family members, to take to a friend’s house or even to your local neighborhood park to get everyone interested in the game.

CHESS IS FUN! Dude, this isn’t just another one of those board games. No chess game ever repeats itself, which means you create more and more new ideas each game. It never gets boring. You always have so much to look forward to. Every game you are the general of an army and you alone decide the destiny of your soldiers. You can sacrifice them, trade them, pin them, fork them, lose them, defend them, or order them to break through any barriers and surround the enemy king. You’ve got the power!

To summarize everything in three little words: Chess is everything!